The World's Most Expensive Railway is in a Hole


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Large infrastructure projects are almost always delivered late and massively over-budget. Then everyone forgets about the fuss and marvels at the achievement. Few people regret today that Britain and France built a rail tunnel under the English Channel, yet it cost a fortune and nearly caused the owner to collapse.

One must be wary, then, of the often nimbyish opposition to Britain’s plan to build a new high-speed railway between London and the north of the country, known as HS2. Balfour Beatty Plc, Vinci SA, Eiffage SA, Skanska AB and Kier Group Plc are among the contractors slated to help deliver Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

Supporters say it will boost rail capacity and connectivity between Britain’s cities, create thousands of jobs and spur economic development and urban regeneration. Their opponents argue that the project is an ill-conceived financial black hole that could end up costing 106 billion pounds ($138 billion).  While both sides have a point, it’s hard to believe this money will be spent wisely.

The World's Most Expensive Railway is in a Hole
Weeks after winning a thumping election victory with a promise to boost less well-off regions beyond London, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are bitterly divided over HS2. A final decision is expected as soon as this week. Fed up of Brexit paralysis, the temptation for ministers to “just do something” must be strong. Even so, the brave move would be to call a halt, and at the very least order fundamental changes to the project.

Politicians and engineers shouldn’t be afraid to think big. Britain’s overpriced and frequently overcrowded train services aren’t a patch on France’s TGV or Japan’s Shinkansen. But much of the decent infrastructure built in the U.K. lately — such as the Crossrail and HS1 rail projects and the Thames Tideway super-sewer — was constructed in the wealthy London area.

Sadly, almost everything about HS2 invites disbelief. The costs are stupefying, the design is too complicated and its environmental credentials are questionable. Even now it’s not clear what problem HS2 is trying to solve or whether it’s the most cost-effective way to solve it. That’s unacceptable when it will consume more cash than Britain spends annually on education.

The Johnson government may forge ahead blindly because preliminary work is already advanced. More than 7.5 billion pounds has been spent on land purchases, archaeological excavations and preliminary design and demolition work. “In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging,” Johnson claimed last week, with typical bravado.

In fairness, there is a lack of “shovel-ready” alternatives to ease capacity constraints on the train network. Simply upgrading existing lines would cause years of disruption to passengers.  

And densely-populated Britain isn’t alone in discovering that high-speed lines don’t come cheap. Costs on these projects are rising everywhere and their average time to completion in Europe is around 16 years. The first phase of HS2 connecting London and Birmingham requires more than 300 bridges and 70 viaducts.

The World's Most Expensive Railway is in a Hole

Still, HS2’s projected costs — more than 160 million pounds per km for the first section — are far higher than other European high-speed lines, and most of the construction hasn’t even begun yet. It’s impossible to predict the final bill because the planning for the second phase of the project is still at an early stage, warns the National Audit Office.  

Qualifying his call to keep digging, Johnson last week accused HS2 of being “profligate” and said the way it was managed was “hopeless”. He is right.

HS2’s trains will be capable of reaching up to 225 miles per hour (360 km/hr), enabling as many as 18 hourly departures from London. Both the maximum speed and flow rate are higher than other high-speed lines in Europe or Japan. Yet successive governments and HS2 Ltd., the public body tasked with delivering the project, have consistently underestimated its complexity and cost; difficult ground conditions are the latest problem. The failure to contain and communicate these risks has undermined their credibility.

The ultra-fast design has fueled suspicions that HS2 is a vanity project that will benefit business folk, especially those in London. Overcrowding is most common on local commuter routes, not intercity express lines. Rail connections between northern cities are poor. The money might be better spent on that.

It’s remarkable that an infrastructure project billed as benefiting the Midlands and the north will commence work in London and the south, where expensive tunneling and ground-lowering work is required to keep wealthy locals happy. The northern section probably won’t be completed until 2040.

At the same time, HS2’s environmental credentials have been undermined by the carbon expended in the project’s construction and materials. And the route doesn’t link to Heathrow airport or Eurostar international rail services in St Pancras, which might have persuaded more Brits not to fly domestically or to Europe.

Perhaps there’s a way to salvage HS2 without gutting its ambition or culling it altogether. Regrettably, the findings of a government ordered review of the project still haven’t been published. The aspiration to provide decent infrastructure is noble, but it doesn’t excuse poor management, the signing of blank checks and favoring the south of England.

Johnson needs to get a grip and the emergency brake is a decent place to start. As he admits, this project is in a hole; the smart thing would be to dig a better one.

The 106 billion pounds figure has been cited in press reports in relation to the (unpublished) Oakervee review of HS2. The latest official estimate is a maximum of 88 billion pounds.

Using the mid-point cost estimate in the HS2 chairman's review and a length of 230km. The calculation is in 2015 prices.

Making meaningfulcomparisons is difficult because HS2 includes lots of station and tunnel construction work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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